Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Examination Special
Down on the farm...

Down on the farm the herd are shortly to go to market, but they’ll need fattening-up if they’re to fetch a good price for the farm manager.  Modern, intensive farming methods mean that these days the livestock is rarely put out onto common land to forage and fatten naturally for market, as used to happen two or three weeks after Easter.  Instead, the farm workers are now required to keep the stock on the farm in indoor pens where they can be fed a carefully prepared diet whilst being closely monitored for signs of wasting.  A further benefit of keeping the stock in these sedentary holding pens is that it prevents the stock from wandering off and causing damage to themselves that may reduce their price at market. 

After five years on the farm, however, some of the stock becomes highly agitated and it is necessary for the farm manager to assemble all the animals of marketable age and frighten them: this is know as an ‘assembly.’  It has become increasingly popular for farm workers to placate and soothe the more restless livestock with music piped into the farmyard buildings.  A fortunate by-product of this practice is that it seems to increase the animals’ appetite for stale or dry fodder.  Some farm workers even go so far as to allow some of the stock to select its own music - which each wears inside its ears - so long as the fodder is eaten, or, as the workers say, ‘done.’

The livestock are fed a specially prepared diet to ensure that they put on the maximum weight possible and each animal is continually measured as both The Board of Farming and The Inspector of Farms are firmly of the opinion that the bigger the animal the better.  There are some farm workers and purchasers of the stock, however, who claim that some of the largest specimens produce the least flavoursome meat, and that much of this bulk is simply down to a thick layer of fat which is of no use, and which has to be thrown away at a later date.

By this time in the year the stock will already have been provisionally graded, the lower grade stock having for some months now been fed a basic yet adequate diet.  The higher grade animals are frequently given special supplements which are often administered after the other animals have been let out towards the end of the day.  Having watched this part of the diet being consumed it is clear that this fodder is hard to swallow and very unpleasant to taste; yet the animals seem to understand that it is good for them and they do their best to digest it, or, as the farm workers say, ‘take it in.’

There is a peculiar practice that happens on many farms regarding the amount of attention given to individual animals and this is worth explaining in some detail.  A great deal of fuss is made over the average specimens - the ones that are expected to achieve only a middling price at market - and the staff on the farm are under strict instructions to pay them particular attention.  In dire circumstances, or when a vast sum of money called a ‘funding’ is at stake, the foreman of the farm or even the farm manager will take such an animal away at intervals where, it is understood, they perform a special series of prods and pokes that are intended to make the animal grow bigger very quickly, and so fetch a better price on market day.  The reason for this prodding and poking is that although the animal can fetch any one of eight possible prices (not including the last price which is reserved for Useless Animals), an animal that reaches one of the four top prices is worth, to the farm manager, a dozen or so of those that do not.  This is because of a steep falling away of the price halfway down the grading and explains the elaborate soothing and petting visited upon the average specimens. 

The Board of Farming insists that all animals of a certain age on the farm go under the hammer on market day.  Some farm managers attempt to hide animals on the farm or remove them altogether if it is clear that they will achieve a poor price.  This is because when the Inspector of Farms comes to assess the productivity of the farm he will only be concerned with two things: firstly, the number of animals achieving the top prices when compared to the number only achieving one of the lower prices; and secondly, the average price achieved when every animal on the farm is considered. 

As market day approaches it is not unusual for one or two of the best animals on the farm to collapse without warning, whereupon they are allowed to leave the farm for a period.  This collapsing is a tremendous worry for both farm worker and farm manager for it seems to happen only to the higher grade animals and is necessarily a great loss to the productivity of the farm.  Although the exact cause of the collapse is not known, such an animal is usually said to have been ‘under stress’.  I have with my own eyes seen several best of breeds fail in this way.  The carcass of such an animal is often still presented at the sale where, because of its superior breeding, it will still get something.

This year The Board of Farming is predicting another bumper yield as modern, intensive farming methods continue to raise the Average Price Achieved.  But for the farm manager and workers the approach of market day is always a very worrying and difficult time of the year.

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